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August 07, 2006

Swaddling Clothes

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As a blogosphere inhabitant you learn things. One that has come as a surprise to me is that many people don't understand how kiddie-centric America has become. To me, this is one of the central givens of contempo American life. It seems so blazingly evident to me that I tend to assert it as established fact, and am amazed to encounter people who dispute it.

What's my proof? Not a lot, I'm afraid. Mere impressions, really. I'm hardly a world traveler -- I've lived overseas for a total of a little more than a year, and I haven't visited any more foreign countries than most standard-issue, middle-class Americans. Nonetheless, what has jumped out at me most during my times abroad is the way that other cultures don't organize themselves around children to the same extent that the U.S. does.

I spent a school year in Rennes, Brittany in the early 1970s. Here are a few examples of how their attitudes towards kids differed from ours.

  • They never took vacations for the kids -- to visit landmarks for the sake of the kids' educations, or just because the kids were clamoring to go someplace. Theme parks were nonexistent, and the idea of devoting a few weeks of one's treasured time-off to a kiddie destination would have been found laughable. Vacations were to be spent where the parents could enjoy their well-earned leisure.

  • Days and weeks weren't organized around the kiddies' obligations and plans: playdates, music lessons, soccer games, SAT-coaching appointments, etc. Life was organized around the parents' rhythms.

  • Grownups didn't choose neighborhoods to live in strictly for the sake of the kids. They might (or might not) move someplace because they knew the schools there to be better. But that was rare. And, in any case, parents certainly wouldn't sacrifice anything in the way of their own dignity and pleasure for the sake of, say, a big backyard.

I saw two assumptions being lived-out in France: One was that adult life has worth in its own right. The other was that the kids would make do.

A self-centered American teen during this year abroad, I was often most struck by the way the French viewed adolescence. The teen years weren't viewed as Americans often see them -- as a sexy high and a big deal, however agony-riddled and pimple-filled. Adolescence was viewed instead as a fairly unfortunate 3-5 year stretch during which youngsters had to be cut a little more slack than usual. And then it was over. Come 20 or 21, you were expected to leave the silliness and the acting-out behind. Incidentally, one reason why French pop culture is so laughable compared to American pop culture is that the French simply don't take adolescence as seriously as we do. So their pop culture has nothing like the ringing conviction to it that ours sometimes does.

Children, in other words, weren't seen as heavenly little creatures around whom all of life inevitably revolves. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that, these days, I often encounter American parents who view their own children religiously -- as their very reason for being. OK, sure, fine, whatever helps you get by. But isn't it a little sad that, for some of these people, adult life apparently has zero intrinsic worth except so far as it can be put to the service of "the children"? What a dismal view of adult life.

But my personal experience is very limited, and it's hardly K.O.-style proof for my contention. So, since I've awakened to the fact that some people disagree with me, I've spent a little time trying to rustle up more substantial work that might confirm (or, sigh, contradict) my impressions.

Recently I've been reading Edward Shorter's 1975 "The Making of the Modern Family." It's an excellent and super-informative book -- as well as, thankfully, a surprisingly fun and witty read for an academic work of history/sociology. If it doesn't supply the proof that I opened it hoping to find, that's because its subject is somewhat different than what I expected. Still: interesting and enlightening in its own right.

Shorter's theme is traditional family life vs. modern family life in Europe, and his subject is common people. He isn't talking about the literate aristocracy who left behind such a wealth of testimony and evidence about their lives. He's interested instead in the other 98% of people: peasants, artisans, middle-class people. How did they form marriages? What was their child-rearing like? And what were their sex lives like? The evidence is scarce indeed (birth records, the reports of village physicians, etc). But Shorter does what he can, with occasional reminders of how modest his claims and his evidence are.

Briefly: Traditional family life was an enactment of handed-down-from-the-ages scripts. How couples sorted themselves out was a matter for intense community supervision. Pairing-off wasn't about romantic love or self-fulfillment; instead it was concerned entirely with the passing along of patrimonies. Traditional child-rearing was, by our standards, a brutal affair, if perfectly designed to mold another generation of people who'd live their lives according to the same age-old scripts.

According to Shorter, beginning in the 1700s traditional family life was gradually replaced by modern family life, with its emphasis on individual self-fulfillment, privacy, the cultivation of the self, and the special-ness of maternal love and childhood. Small aside for we who enjoy mulling over the 1960s: Shorter also argues, without going into it much, that the 1960s represented as big a revolution in sex and family life as did the 1800s. I wonder if, 30 years on, he still thinks so.

Shorter's most controversial point is that traditional people weren't repressing what we consider natural: such feelings and qualities as individuality, the sexiness of adolescents, love and affection. He argues that we're projecting backwards when we make such assumptions, and that we're mistaken to do so. Instead, in traditional life, sensibilites, romance, and the self (in our sense) simply didn't exist. Romantic-erotic love -- absent. The cultivation of the self and of its sensibilities -- unheard-of. Private life -- nonexistent. Tender feelings towards children -- inconceivable.

Spontaneity and empathy -- qualities and capabilities essential to modern life -- were simply unknown. In Shorter's view, what the birth of modern family life and sexuality represented wasn't a release of the previously repressed, but was instead the discovery and cultivation of sides of life that were entirely new.

I'm buyin' it myself. Nowhere is this more evident than in views of children. Everyday people in traditional society viewed their offspring with a shocking absence of sympathy and tenderness. This isn't controversial; it has been widely noted by many scholars. The argument that's usually made is that parents wanted to care for their children but couldn't afford to because so many of the kids died. After all, it wasn't unusual for four of five children not to make it to adulthood. Since parents couldn't have survived such a huge amount of devastation and grief, they detached.

Shorter will have none of this. According to him, parents didn't love their kids (in our sense) in the first place. His clinching fact: One of the main reasons so many kids died was because of what we'd think of as parental neglect and abuse. For many years, even after it had been determined that affection, love, and caring could help a child thrive, parents still didn't adjust. Shorter writes: "The point is that these mothers did not care, and that is why their children vanished in the ghastly slaughter of the innocents that was traditional child-rearing."

Parents had kids and typically -- by our standards, anyway -- barely raised 'em at all. Many children were farmed out to professional wet-nurses, who raised the kids in horrible circumstances. The wet-nurses had no fondness for their charges, viewing them strictly as money-making propositions. Kids sent out to wet-nurses were twice as likely to die as kids who stayed at home. Even after these figures were known, parents continued sending their kids to wet nurses.

It's worth pausing for a minute over what kinds of conditions parents were sending their kids into. Wet nurses usually came from the peasant or laborer class. These were desperately poor, ignorant women, often raising three or four strangers' children in only one room. And what a room: badly ventilated, often shared with farm animals as well as other people, and with a fertilizer pile right at the front door. Shorter quotes a contemporary source about what the floors in these habitations -- hard to call 'em "houses" -- were like: "a sort of black water, greenish and fetid" was always beneath the feet. Nappies and bedding were changed about, oh, once a millennium, and unruliness was taken care of with doses of alcohol and laudanum. Fun capper: These poor wet-nurses often handed out their own kids to the super-super-poor.

As for the mothers themselves ... They never visited their children at the wet nurse's; they often referred to a child as "it"; they often forgot their kids' ages; they often gave the name of a dead baby to a new one; and they often lost track of how many kids they had. The ultimate test of affection might be thought to come when a child dies. Surely pre-modern parents who lost a child were distraught. Not hardly: A contemporary source in France wrote that the parents in his village viewed their children's deaths "with great equanimity," sometimes even skipping the funeral. A child's death was considered a tragedy only when the mother died along with the child. Why? Because "this would require that the husand return his wife's dowry to her relatives."

Another quick snapshot of traditional child-rearing:

"All the doctors complain about how parents permit children to stew in thier own excrement for hours on end, tightly wound in swaddling clothes; about how children left unattended before the hearth perish when their garments catch fire; and about how unguarded infants would be attacked and eaten by the barnyard hogs."

If peasant children weren't much better off than the livestock, middle class kids didn't experience indulgence and warmth either. They could never expect, according to one witness

"the slightest caress on the part of father or mother. Fear was the principle on which upbringing was founded. Whoever taught the children to read would grab their shirts about the shoulders, then hold the book in one hand, the rod in the other, ready to flail away at the slightest oversight."

Traditional family life started to fall apart (depending on where you were, and what class you belonged to) circa 1750. Shorter: "It was not until the 1860s that the common people of France began to form [a modern-style] attachment to their children." Traditional-style upbringings were still in evidence in certain regions as recently as 1914.


Tighter! Tighter!!!

Here's one micro-tale to illustrate how callous it was once commonplace to be towards children: the story of swaddling clothes. I suppose to many of us the idea of swaddling clothes makes us think of Renaissance paintings, Madonnas and childs, etc. I know I'd never given swaddling clothes much mind. But really: cloth strips wrapped tightly around infants -- what were people thinking?

Swaddling clothes were in fact as inhibiting as you might imagine. Different regions had different ways of swaddling their babies, yet in nearly all places cloth strips were wrapped first around the body and limbs of the child, and were then cinched tightly around the whole package. Swaddling clothes didn't just happen to be binding. They were meant to be binding. They were often first applied to kids very soon -- as in "within hours" -- after birth, and the whole point of them was to prevent movement. Shorter:

A child lying stiff in swaddling clothes was unable to wave its hands and feet in the air, incapable of reaching out to grasp some dangled object, forbidden by its bonds to respond to maternal playfulness. And if mothers tied their children from head to feet so that they couldn't respond to tickling, clucking, and cajoling, it must mean the mothers had little interest in such things in the first place.

Needless to say, these cloth wrappings, once laboriously put in place, were seldom changed, and ferocious rashes plagued nearly all babies. In one region in Germany, busy mothers and nurses would hang their swaddled infant charges up on nails on the wall to get them out of the way. Not a surprise that people who began life in swaddling clothes would grow up (if they were lucky enough to survive at all) into people able to play along with the binding values and scripts of traditional life.

Educated people began protesting against swaddling in the 1750s, but "for all this outrage there is no sign that swaddling had begun to lose its hold among the people before 1850," even though city dwellers and upper-middle and upper class people began abandoning the practice earlier.

Shorter's book is full of often unexpected information. Those who like dwelling on the evils of America and the repressiveness of the Puritans will have to wrestle with the fact that Puritans and Americans were never prone to wrap their kids in swaddling clothes. (In Shorter's view, Americans have always been modern in terms of family life.) Those who enjoy picturing Anglo-Saxon culture as cold and uncaring will have to deal with the fact that Anglo-Saxons were in fact the first Europeans to abandon swaddling, and to start seeing nursing and raising your own children as a worthwhile thing to do.

As for art-centric me, Shorter has me viewing Romanticism a bit differently than I did before. For us post-moderns, the Classicism-or-Romanticism question is a matter for choice. Both points of view -- in fact, much more than that -- are available to us, to mix and match (and revise and tweak) as we see fit. Shorter has me understanding that Romanticism, whatever its excesses and dangers, was also an assertion of emotion, individuality, and even kindness in reaction to a scary and harsh environment. But this is me seeing this story through the lens of art history. That's often a mistake. Shorter avoids discussing his material in terms of Romanticism, and is in fact at pains to point out that many of these developments were well underway by the time Rousseau wrote "Emile." Despite its self-serving claims, art -- while it often reflects changes -- seldom initiates them.

I wrote about how -- and about how recently -- the U.S. has given itself over to adolescent values here.

Wikipedia has an informative entry on swaddling clothes. An interesting note from it: "Although the extreme form of swaddling has fallen out of favour in the Western world, many Eastern cultures and tribal people still use it."

Edward Shorter is interviewed here about the history of psychosomatic illnesses.

When I gabbed at the Wife about all this, she pointed out something new that she notices in the lives of those around around us: Young adults, circa 20-25, who were clearly indulged as children yet who also grew up being their parents' parents. What are those adults who pour so much of themselves into their children looking for? I pity their kids -- and dread the day those kids become my bosses.

I'm happy to admit that I'm no history scholar or sociology buff, and I'm as eager as ever to learn more. But, lordy, isn't anyone else as struck as I am by how kiddie-centric American life has become?



posted by Michael at August 7, 2006


I would add a twist to your analysis. American childrearing has become *unbelievably* kid-centric, to the degree of threatening to infantilize the parents. But American life has responded by dividing rather sharply between people who can take that kind of lifestyle and people who can't. People who can: usually move to the suburbs, structure their life around kids to an amazing degree (as you point out), usually Republican. People who can't: live in lifestyle cities or along the coasts, delay childrearing or end up never getting around to it at all, usually Democrats.

What has changed is that one must make a much sharper, starker choice between a life centered around kids or a more adult one. The days of sticking your kids in around the edges of a life centered around adult pleasures seem to be over.

Posted by: MQ on August 7, 2006 12:21 PM

I'm definitely gun-shy when it comes to discussing this topic. Several months ago, I posted a comment on a blog - what blog, I cannot remember, it wasn't one of my usual haunts - merely _suggesting_ that parents who buy expensive houses they can't really afford, so their children can be in highly rated school districts, might in fact be making a costly mistake. I went on to note that one's children usually can do okay in any decent school district; noting, for example, that a child who attends a high school with an average SAT score of 1300 and later becomes a highly esteemed professional would not have turned into a burger-flipping slacker if he or she had attended a high school with an average SAT score of 1100.

This seemingly common-sense observation earned me a flaming of near-apocalyptic proportions. To advocate sending one's precious ankle-biter to anything but the best school imaginable - even if doing so nearly bankrupts the family - was equated, in a moral sense at least, to selling one's children to oil sheiks as sex slaves. I therefore decided that from then on, I would not dare comment on school choice or indeed on overprotective parenting in any manner.

Posted by: Peter on August 7, 2006 12:30 PM

Hi Michael,
this guy has given a lot of thought to this:

Posted by: zg on August 7, 2006 12:53 PM

Preamble: I haven't read Shorter's book and, given that I'm up to my ears in other activities for the next 2 months, probably won't get to him at all.

That said, it's a little fuzzy to me how different social groups dealt with children (according to Shorter). He contended that poor folk farmed out kids? Where did he get his data? Nobility and other wealthy folks could afford to farm kids out -- a practice common into the 20th century (read most any biography of Winston Churchill for one case history of late 19th century practices).

Still, I tend to think "human nature" is a lot stronger than "social scientists" are professionally willing to admit. Consider the following possibilities:

First, sanitation and medical care 150 years ago and before, at their best, were laughable by today's standards -- a matter of ignorance. Some of the treatment of infants might well be chalked up to that alone.

Second, in large part due to the above, infant mortality was high. I vaguely recall reading years ago that parents in an Asian country (I forget which) didn't bother to name children until they got through their first year or so, given that survival was problematical. (I can't vouch for this assertion, so treat with some skepticism for now.) The larger point being that if, say, only half your babies would survive to puberty, why invest a lot of emotion in them? -- it will only lead to unnecessary mental torment for the parents. This is rational behavior, I think. Nowadays few children will die before reaching adulthood, so parents have the freedom to act differently. Though not always wisely, IMHO.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 7, 2006 1:00 PM

I'm reading this blog entry while still processing the series of articles in the NYTimes about 40% (or whatever) of men failing to marry -- either by choice or by circumstance -- and living alone in extremely neat houses with NO CHILDREN. They will allow a live-in woman now and then, but the relationship only lasts until children are mentioned. Then OUT.

it strikes me that most people go along somewhere in the center, but I DO see the kiddie-centric thing everywhere. Just the amount of a material goods and professional out-of-school activity is a stunner. And I also see how lost people are when the last kid leaves the house (assuming they do and don't return within months, out of a job again). Often the marriage breaks up at that point.

Teaching now is as much as your life is worth, a constant struggle to document reality as the parents threaten terrible consequences if their little dunderhead doesn't shine. But the same parent who has just threatened the teacher with a lawsuit if they can't make Johnny behave will turn and smack Johnny hard alongside the head, commanding him to achieve. It's insane.

As for the swaddling thing, I read a study once comparing Peruvian peasant babies, left swaddled and alone in a dark hut all day because the parents must go to the field and work (swaddled both to keep them from wandering off or falling into the fire, etc. and to keep them warm), with babies raised "free range." The Peruvian babies were delayed in development, but soon caught up once they were released. Maybe a study worth re-doing. Maybe it's better for babies to do more watching than cramming things into their mouths.

While I'm thinking about it, what happened to the Snuggli craze?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 7, 2006 3:42 PM

Yes, hugely struck. I was not brought up this way (having been born in the mid-60s). I don't have kids but most of my friends do. I like most of these kids but I do miss grown-up activities with their parents, who often seem to shed most vestiges of their former selves.

Also, if you can't/don't have kids, it seems weird to others. People I barely know seem to feel little compunction about inquiring into whether I have "started a family" (an odd phrase in my view) or why not. And so often, in fiction, movies, etc, childlessness appears to be code for dysfunctional people in unhappy relationships leading meaningless lives. It might be all in my mind, but I often feel I am judged based on this one fact (my husband does not get this vibe).

Posted by: Linda on August 7, 2006 4:08 PM

We took our oldest to Spain with us when he was 8 a few years ago. The first thing we noticed about kids there was that they were everywhere at all times of the day and night. Never in two weeks, I mean not even once, did we witness a child misbehave in public. Adults did not focus their lives around their kids (at all), but neither did they exclude them. They were simply expected to behave, or rather, be engaged in wherever their parents took them. The bullring was the one place where children were scarce. We took our kid, but we were given some strange looks by the Spanish spectators we were sitting with.

This effected us a great deal and has informed our parenting ever since. I can't say that we're as successful in having our kids behave in public situations as our Spanish counterparts appeared to be, but we do take our kids pretty much everywhere (expensive restaurants not included), and they generally behave quite well because they are used to it. I think that parents often take the easy way out and decide their kids would never behave in certain situations. We are sometimes guilty of this ourselves.

Ha, I lost track of where I was going with this...more later...

Posted by: the patriarch on August 7, 2006 4:37 PM

I don't buy it. The western world was never uniformly or overwhelmingly as bleak toward its young as Mr. Shorter purports. It was probably the case that prior to the enlightenment there was less sympathy for the expression of tender feelings. But can we seriously believe that the child of a craftsman (for example), who was raised to take his place in that craftsman's guild, was not valued? We were not one day brutes and the next day epicene.

Posted by: ricpic on August 7, 2006 5:30 PM

This is an enormously interesting subject for me, and one which I wish I had more time to gather my thoughts about.

Michael -- have you read Neil Postman's "The Disappearance of Childhood"? I read it quite a while ago, so forgive me if I'm mistating Postman's point, but he argues that modern childhood, and especially adolescence, is not "natural" (which is not the same as saying it's not a good thing), but that it arose alongside, and as a result of, the print-based culture. He makes a case that the advent of television-based culture is starting to erase the distinction between childhood and adulthood, so that we're left with a culture of perpetual adolescence, in which the very idea of drawing that line (between childhood and adulthood) begins to make people profoundly uncomfortable. Thus you get a "chilhood" that's increasingly overtly sexualized (see Bratz dolls) and an "adulthood" that's increasingly infantilized (see "adult" styles of dress, music preferences, etc.)

I think the European model of child-rearing *is* different from the American model, but I think the difference lies, not in being necessarily less child-centric, but in being more comfortable making a distinction between childhood and adulthood. In my opinion, it's not that Europeans are less invested in their children -- I have a very good Italian friend who cuddles his nine year old daughter to sleep every night -- but that they're more comfortable being (acting like, dressing like, speaking like) adults.

Don't get me wrong. Sacrificing for the kids is a *good* thing. My husband and I have gone on plenty of child-centric vacations and outings, and we've chosen a place to live based partly on what's good for our children. But we don't think there's anything wrong with making them aware that there's an adult world out that *we* are part of and *they* are not -- a world whose rites and secrets they won't be privy to until they grow up.

Posted by: Kate Marie on August 7, 2006 5:44 PM

Oooops, "mistating" should be misstating, I think.

Posted by: Kate Marie on August 7, 2006 6:34 PM

Modern childrearing is scary, scary stuff. I'm 36, and I remember when I was growing up in a semi-rural area of Connecticut in the 70's, once you 5-6 years old and could keep up with the neighborhood pack of kids, you were left on your own, unsupervised, to wander hither and yon, as long as you were back for dinner. Today, my sister lives in a similar area, with a 7 and 5 year old, and I truly believe that if her kids were found on their own out of sight of an adult, she'd be brought up on charges. The paranoia, and the consequent pressures brought upon parents to protect their kids from the slightest, well-nigh-imaginary danger, is beyond belief...

Posted by: jimbo on August 7, 2006 6:45 PM

As someone raised by Indian parents, this does not compute. Indian culture, now *that's* a kid-centric culture, man......

Posted by: MD on August 7, 2006 6:45 PM

No such thing as maternal love? Bullshit: otherwise, how are kids surviving at all. The attitudes of what best ensures your kids' survival & well-being have certainly changed, but if parents before 1750 didn't really care about their kids, when we belong to a species where such care is essential given our extremely long childhood/adolescent phase, then we would've gone extinct. Almost everyone alive in 1750, as now, was the child of a parent who gave a shit about them.

Shorter's ignoring the huge amount of things parents have always done for the well-being of their kids -- some of it obvious, like providing food, shelter, support when outsiders threaten the child, etc., in other words, stuff no one would do for a stranger, let alone for 15 or so years w/o getting much in return. Some of the stuff they did for their kids' well-being was superstitious crap like swaddling clothes: people trust experts, not without reason, so when the experts are know-nothings -- say, the medical establishment up until the early-mid 20th C -- then parents will do sub-optimal things to their kids, but believing it's the right thing. The way you would've had the doctor perform blood-letting on a dear relative back then.

No offense, but only a sociologist ignorant of 9th grade biology could fail to notice how much parents have always loved their kids, and that this isn't necessarily the same as spoiling them rotten. Sheesh! I do agree about America becoming more kid-centric, though: almost all daytime TV ads are geared to guilt-tripping mothers into breaking the bank to make junior into the next Einstein. If he doesn't have a $100 keyboard/mini-computer to help him spell at age 2, he'll be illiterate forevermore and will waste away under a bridge somewhere.

But about choice of schools -- that's mostly to protect kids from "bad influences" (or the costs of diversity), not necessarily to boost their SAT score.

Posted by: Agnostic on August 7, 2006 7:14 PM

Thanks. Very interesting. My impression is that social historians' opinions have swung back away from Shorter's views in more recent years, but I am not an expert on this.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on August 7, 2006 8:41 PM

Like Jimbo, I agree that modern child-rearing is scarily over-protective. And MB’s main point is undeniable: parents today dote on their children to a crazy degree, as evidenced by the tightly scheduled play dates and lessons and games and etc…

Agnostic: doesn't MB's paraphrase of Shorter's qualifier phrase obviate your criticism?
“Parents didn't love their kids (in our sense) in the first place."
Undeniably, all mammals care for their offspring. What is being debated is if the way we now believe parents do and should "love" their children is a long-standing behavior/belief, or like such modern notions as romance and soul mates, is instead a newfangled idea.

Donald - on another issue, you seem to simply turn around the phrasing as if that refutes the point:
MB/Shorter asks if -- even though we have *long believed* that parents in ancient times did not “love” their infants as a practical choice because most of the infants suffered from the mortality rate -- what if *instead* the high mortality rate was primarily *caused* by the fact that these parents did not “love” their children?
[(in our modern sense of parental “love”)]
I think that is a possible prospect, and an unnerving one. All told, I’ll certainly take cloying, protective, coddling parents over cold and uncaring ones.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on August 7, 2006 9:01 PM

MQ -- That's a nice distinction, and it certainly chimes with my experience too.

Peter -- Hilarious tale. People really will fire up about the damndest things, won't they? Sometimes all you can do is run for cover.

ZG -- Thanks for the link. Heavens, is that legit? Alarming, in any case.

Donald -- The reason I'm prone to trust Shorter is that I detect no political agenda in his book -- he isn't playing the "everything's relative" game, just saying, Wow, things were a lot different then than they are now. Eager to hear more pro-sociologist reponse!

P. Mary -- I wonder if spending your infant years in swaddling clothes might not be very good training for life in some cultures ... Clearly it worked for what Shorter calls "traditional" European family life. But maybe for others as well.

Linda -- Weird, no? I know a lot of people who are pretty loose and open: people lead all kinds of life and that's cool and fun. But then there are the "everybody oughta do like me" prisses ... Occurs to me they can be found everywhere: the "no one should reproduce" self-righteous types, the "having kids is normal therefore you aren't" type ... Sigh. I'm always amazed that more people don't have a cheery, "aren't we lucky to live in such a wide-open country" kind of attitude, but maybe that's my own prissiness.

Patriarch -- That's a nice snapshot. Interesting that you registered what you saw as quickly as you did, and that it made an impact too. And maybe that's a key thing: the way some cultures are still able to recognize big diffs between adulthood and kidhood. It's funny: they can seem both looser than us and more ... authoritarian, I guess, but not in a bad way.

Ricpic -- Not to speak for him, well, okay, to speak for him ... But I suspect Shorter would argue that pre-Enlightenment most people simply didn't have modern-style "tender feelings" -- that they're a kind of creation/achievement that requires waking-up-to and tending and nourishing. He even discusses masturbation in this context: surely adolescenets must have been whacking-off in 1600 just like they do so obsessively now. And he reviews what's known and what can be known and ventures the thought that, in fact, no they weren't compulsive masturbators: that the cultivation of eroticism (even the fixation on "what turns me on") is a modern development ...

Kate Marie -- That's a great distinction, tks. Funny how so many Americans seem so determined to skip the "adult" phase of life entirely, or at least seem to want to live it like "a great big child who gets to have more expensive toys," isn't it? One of my own pet rants is how very unattractive our culture makes adulthood seem. We seldom make adulthood seem sexy, inviting, desirable. Instead, we're forever portraying it as humiliating, embarrassing, a crying shame. And then lots of Americans go along with that! As though everything past the age of 20 is a wasteland. Sigh, and sigh again.

Jimbo -- I remember being sent out to play (in the '50s and '60s) "until dinner" too. There *is* a lot of terror and anxiety around where the kiddies are concerned these days, isn't there. And not just about whether they'll hurt themselves, but about whether they'll "do well," whatever that means. My own hunch is that Boomers were/are narcissistic, that they romantically over-valued childhood, that they imagined that "the child within" is a big deal -- the source of happiness or not-happiness -- and then have dumped all this silly baggage on the general culture and on their own kids specifically. The Wife tells me that she thinks the heightened anxiety level has something to do with women succeeding in the workplace too -- both with them feeling guilty, and with them simply putting traditional no-fun, anxiety-time, let's-all-play-nice female values in place. Hey, she said it, I didn't! (Although I couldn't agree more...)

MD -- Details please, you tease. I hear that Indian families and their kid-centricity are something to behold. How'd that manifest itself for you in the Midwest? Were you even more catered-to than most of your neighbor kids?

Agnostic -- I should dig up Shorter and have him respond to you. But I'd love to see you eyeball the book. The evidence he presents about parental behavior pre-1750 is pretty startling. It's hard to say that a parent who, for instance, farmed the kid out right at birth to a wet-nurse (whose care he knew doubled the chances of the kid dying), and who then sent the kid to boarding school -- not an uncommon fate for a middle-class kid -- even knew who his kid was, let alone "cared" about him except in the most abstract way.

Steve -- I wish I knew something about responses to Shorter's book, and how the conversation has gone since he published it.

Paul -- We seem to have swung from one extreme to another, don't we? I love these young adults I'm now running into, the ones who were raised by Boomer parents ... They're often sweet, serene, untroubled ... And they're often very bossy too. "Now, what you need to do is --" they'll start a sentence to a boss or an older colleague that way. I'll look at 'em and think, "Ah, so that's how you had to treat your parents, eh?"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 7, 2006 10:25 PM

My mother didn't have much use for me, and I didn't have much use for her, and we got along pretty well. What, really, could I do for her, or her me? Nothing--beyond the three meals a day, we had nothing for each other. The handful of "scheduled" or "planned" events were all, boy scouts, etc.

No, after a certain age ALL healthy children will seek to exile themselves from their parents. Why? Well, let's look at a phrase used by another poster:

"tightly scheduled play dates"

The problem isn't so much the "tight" "schedule" as the words "play date". You see, first of all: It's about the gayest/lamest/most ridiculous term for anything ever devised--and yet there are very serious people out there using it--people who obviously obsess over children, and who obviously haven't the slightest understanding of children.

Second, children don't "play". Everything they do is serious business. In fact, I went about my "playing" as a child perhaps more seriously than I do my actual workaday business today. Today, I can see everything for the sham it is, but as a child (a boy, specifically) I conducted wars, established heirarchies, measured and ranked, fought evil, fought good, etc, etc, all very sincerely. Adults have NO PLACE in such things, psychologically.

Children raise themselves, and always have.

I will say this: It makes good sense to carefully choose your children's peers through living in a particular school district or whatever. That is probably the one thing parents can do that will actually effect their children, for better or worse.

Posted by: onetwothree on August 7, 2006 11:27 PM

From "The Sumerians" by Samuel Noah Kramer:

[Demons, or galla are beings in Sumerian mythology who:]

"Sate not with pleasure the wife's lap
Kiss not the well-fed child
Take away the man's son from his knee
Carry off the daughter-in-law from the house of the father in law"

" is clear...that is was normal for Sumerian parents to love and care for their children and for children to love and heed their parents. In the edubba essays dealing with the Sumerican schools and schoolmen, the relationship between father and son, in particular, is revealed as close, intimate and full of understanding. In the Sumerian myths, admonition and advice by parents for the good and well-being of their children are common and stereotyped."

Given that Sumerian writings antedate 1700 by approximately 4 millenia, how exactly does one explain the attitude described?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 8, 2006 12:28 AM

Onetwothree -- "Playdates" really is a horror of a word, isn't it? "Thou must play! And now!" Doesn't sound like any fun at all. I can't see any reason why parents and kids, or relatives of any sort, should instantly adore each other, can you? I remember talking to one new-mom friend, and she confessed she was feeling a little guilty, because she'd given birth and hadn't instantly felt gushily bonded with the kid. A year or two later she told me that the kid and she had gotten to like each other, which was nice to hear. My guess is that she was actually a good, non-neurotic mother.

FvB -- Apologies, I should have explained that Shorter's "traditional family" refers only to European families circa the early Middle Ages to about 1800. He isn't making the case that this is essential and that's not, just that this is the way developments in Europe seem to have run during this stretch. As MD indicated, I bet there are a lot of traditional family styles that make much of kids.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 8, 2006 1:25 AM

"...they often gave the name of a dead baby to a new one..."

This is called a "necronym", and is hardly a sinister practice considering the seriousness with which children were christened in those days. The first boy was generally named after the father's father, the second after the mother's; the first girl for the mother's mother, the second for the father's. If one of these kids were lost, the next child of that sex got the assignment to carry the name into the next generation.

This system started to break down in the backwoods in the early nineteenth century, and the rot slowly spread to the (then) more civilized cities. Today, only very, very serious people, such as Ozzy Osbourne and Paul McCartney, would ever think of naming a child for a parent.

Look at the roster of any elementary school class of the last thirty years, and see if even one child in four is given his name for any other reason than that it sounds "cool". That's the depth of our "civilization" these days.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on August 8, 2006 2:51 AM

C,mon, of course adolescents masturbated in the 17th Century! I seem to recall a poem by Rochester which refers to "schoolboys frigging" as an archetypal behaviour. Shakespeare also contradicts the idea that people didnt care much for their children before the 18th Century. Read _King John_ for instance.

Posted by: Sammo on August 8, 2006 4:08 AM

Reg -- There's interesting sociology to be done re the way kids have been named in recent decades, that's for sure.

Sammo -- Shorter went looking for the evidence of the usual epic amounts of adolescent masturbation and couldn't find it. No doubt there were exceptions, just as there were exceptions where parental affection was concerned. But the whole "adolescents are constantly sexed-up to the point where they can barely contain themselves and thus must constantly be needing to give themselves relief" thing seems to have been a function of modern-style family and romantic and sex lives. Makes a kind of sense: God knows we cultivate our emotions and nurse our little obsessions.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 8, 2006 7:29 AM

There's been some lovely blame-gaming in this thread, but might I reserve perhaps 10% of the responsibility for today's obsessive parenting for Herr Doktor Freud? He's the one who's made us all believe that even seemingly trivial childhood incidents Really Matter Because They Deform Us Forever.

We're getting over him now, of course, but some of his basic ideas have dug in deep in our culture; rooting them out will no doubt take decades.

Posted by: mr tall on August 8, 2006 8:02 AM

Shorter went looking for the evidence of the usual epic amounts of adolescent masturbation and couldn't find it.

No kidding. Probably didn't find much evidence for nose-picking either. Methodologically, this would seem to be a more or less insurmountable evidentiary problem with the sort of things different eras tend to bother recording or not. Where would one even go to look to start researching late mediaeval masturbation? There's a reason sensible people laugh at academics hung up on such frivolous topics.

On the other hand (!), I wonder if the mini-moral panic over jerking off in the late 18th/ early 19th cs. (e.g., Baden Powell's first Boy Scout manual) could be evidence for your assertion, "But the whole "adolescents are constantly sexed-up to the point where they can barely contain themselves and thus must constantly be needing to give themselves relief" thing seems to have been a function of modern-style family and romantic and sex lives." I don't buy it, by the way, but it's interesting that the issue did, um, come up at that particular time in a big way.

Apropos of nothing much, I dimly remember that there's a Horace satire about masturbating in a hotel room. Solo male business travel hasn't changed much, it would seem. (Masturbare being, by the by, a perfectly authentic and very ancient piece of classical Latin.)

Posted by: Evan McElravy on August 8, 2006 9:45 AM

A MILLION things here!

First, evo - bio: social animals, predators, monkeys "love" their babies. I breed dogs-- have two litters with us right now. Watch them.

Hunter- gatherers, though I don't romanticize them, love their kids-- and don't use swaddling clothes-- although there were American Indian cradle boards and the like. Mary might know. My impression is that they are very affectionate with kids, but un- obsessed with them (I know only Navajos).

Monkeys masturbate. A lot, in captivity.

My father, raised by Italian immigrants, was the third son. The other two died in infancy of what would be called crib death today. ALL were named Joseph (also my midddle name).

But to the important stuff: Libby and I wre raised very traditionally compared to many boomers-- she a rather upper- class WASP in Berkeley; me a Catholic in Boston. Both of us went to serious private schools. Both were expected to have manners, be "seen and not heard", to work hard, and to amuse ourselves by reading, playing etc., and not to bother adults. I actually grew up in a new suburb, with woods on the edge, and spent my time not reading running wild there.

Consequently Libby started her son (his late father Harry was of the same adventure- WASP background-- they both were Outward Bound guides) like-- themselves. Jack was expected to play, entertain himself, and behave well. When I took over I instinctively did the same. I remenber our rolling our eyes when Lib's co- workers at a California- based outdoor clothing company talked of their kids as "their best friends".

Somehow Jack survived both that and running wild in the (Montana) countryside with his friends. He is now a graduate of St. John's, a former river guide, an opera critic, married, and is about to attend graduate school.

A lot of his peers still live at home with their rich parents (nearing thirty!) and/ or hold down slacker jobs or none. Many of them didn't finish college. These are kids who were so coddled I am amazed they can feed themselves.

And now at 28 Jack IS one of our best friends. So count me a fan of the "European model".(Except come to think of it our rancher friends tend to raise kids the same way... another topic?)

Posted by: Steve Bodio on August 8, 2006 10:03 AM

Regarding swaddling; my oldest as a newborn was very agitated in his crib until the nurse wrapped him snuggly in a receiving blanket and sort of jammed him in the corner of the crib. My daughter was born premature, needing to be in an incubator under lights for some days. She exhibitted the same agitation and when she was able to be bundled the monitor confirmed her being more relaxed. Who'd have guessed? I guess after being snug invitro, snug is more comfy outside too.

As for childcentricm, we seem to be of two minds: one increasingly hostile to the "intrusion" of kids, the other gooily obsessive.

Posted by: Bradamante on August 8, 2006 10:08 AM

Michael: "Shorter went looking for the evidence of the usual epic amounts of adolescent masturbation and couldn't find it. No doubt there were exceptions, just as there were exceptions where parental affection was concerned. But the whole "adolescents are constantly sexed-up to the point where they can barely contain themselves and thus must constantly be needing to give themselves relief" thing seems to have been a function of modern-style family and romantic and sex lives."

This might simply be a matter of surplus energy, or the lack thereof. It's a cliche of the rigid English boarding school that boys were notoriously over-worked and under-fed. As I understand it, this was largely to keep them from, well, committing misconduct. As idleness increases, so does the work of idle hands.

I think Gertrude Himmelfarb talks about this in The De-Moralizion of Society.

Posted by: Brian on August 8, 2006 10:20 AM

I was named for my mother's sister who was killed in a car accident aged 14, plus her youngest sister, plus my father's sister. (All Mary or May.) Not only that, but my traits (hand shape, etc.) were discussed in terms of whether they were like that previous person. I felt rather honored. My mother said I was lucky not to be named for my grandmothers: Beulah and Ethel.

Particularly on this blog, but elsewhere as well, the assumption seems to be that any specific group, nationality or historical period is describable in terms of universals that apply to everyone, whether the subject is swaddling, child raising practices, or masturbation. And yet we all know that everyone is different -- we even value that difference, that span across possibilities that means differing situations can be met.

I can't say what "Indian" child raising practices were or are because in terms of tribes they were so varied. It was a matter of "whatever works," and there was usually a spectrum of possibilities: put the kid in your parka hood, tie the kid on your back with a shawl (nursing means kids stay close to Mom), trek the kid along in a little willow cage on a travois (the cage to keep it from falling off), give the toddlers an old horse to ride, leave the kids with the old folks for the day, etc. Grannies and kids used to spend a lot of time together until kids reached the "pack" stage. If they were old enough to pair off sexually, they were old enough to make a match and be adults.

For a while I collected books on child-raising in the early days of the US. There are some pretty interesting ones. Kids who had the hardest times were the ones whose birth parents died, leaving them to the mercies of step-parents. (Still a setup for infanticide.) A recurring theme in old Indian stories is about childless people who "fall in love" with someone's child and take them into their own lodge to raise. Since people lived in groups of relations (either genetic or by affinity), that might just mean sleeping in a different lodge. Everyone watched out for kids, not just the parent.

In Colonial Puritan times there was a practice of trading children with someone else at the pre-adolescent stage, so that one would be appropriately tough on them, teach them to work hard and obey. Otherwise, people would be "soft" and the child might be disabled by lack of self-discipline. A white family did this with an Indian family and the results were a disaster. The white kid didn't want to come home and the Indian kid had all the wrong skills: couldn't hunt, couldn't find water, couldn't follow a trail, etc.

I think that child raising practices are much more situational (esp. economic) than culture-wide. In situations (rural?) where kids are economically crucial, they are treated both more harshly and as more valuable. In situations (today) where they can be a huge liability, standards must be enforced by laws. In luxury cases kids become almost hobbies, like race horses.

As for sexual stuff, people also vary in intensity, time of maturity, style and so on. We forget how individual such matters can be. The literature has examples of men and women so sheltered from what is flaunted today that after marriage someone has to teach them how to have relations so they will have children. That, of course, is no longer a problem since television.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 8, 2006 11:28 AM

The rot set in when parents started helping children with their homework. Tell them to get on with it, folks, and that you'll cuff them if they don't.

Posted by: dearieme on August 8, 2006 1:06 PM

As an Indian like MD, I find this hard to believe too. I dug up some 2000 years old Tamil couplets that talk about children among other things. Check out #0064 and #0066 - could they have been written by a member of a population that didn't have tender feelings for its children?

The link is here .

0061 Of all blessings we know, Nothing worth than begetting intelligent children.

0062 No harm will befall in all seven births If one begets blameless children.

0063 Children are called one's fortune; And their fortune the result of their own deeds.

0064 Sweeter than nectar is the porridge messed up By the tiny hands of one�s children.

0065 To be touched by children is a delight to the body, And to hear their speech a joy to the ear.

0066 "The flute is sweet", "The lute is sweet", Say those who never heard their children lisp.

0067 The good a father can do to his child Is to make him excel in the midst of the learned.

0068 The wisdom of one's own children
Brings joy to all life on the earth.

0069 A woman rejoices at the birth of a son, But even more when he is praised.

0070 The son's duty to his father is to make world ask, "By what austerities did he merit such a son!

Posted by: JM on August 8, 2006 3:35 PM

I'm nearly 60 and I grew up in SW Virginia in a house full of guns. Furthermore, most of my friends' parents and my parents' friends had copious guns in their houses too. Today that would be considered a recipe for disaster.

Believe it or not, I don't recall a single case in my 20 years in SW VA before I moved up to NoVA of a kid killing himself or another kid with a gun. Hunting accidents with adults, yes, but children getting hurt via guns, never. Why? Because the parents taught their kids to respect guns and how to use them if they were interested (mainly sons) and old enough to do so safely. They told all their children who were too young to actually handle guns to stay the heck away from them or there would be serious consequences. This didn't mean you'd get shot although that was what it was meant to prevent. Parents weren't abusive - they didn't beat their kids etc. but we all knew to leave those guns alone.

My parents only had to tell me once - they had street cred as the saying goes. I knew where every one of my father's guns was. They showed me. How could I be expected to stay away from them if I didn't know where they were? It would NEVER have occurred to either of them that my father should give up one of his favorite pasttimes (Hunting) rather than enforce rules on us kids and expect us to obey them.

I mention guns for the simple reason that guns are, in fact, dangerous in the hands of people who don't know how to use them - most children; but our parents taught us that they, not we, made the rules with no apologies. Parents today shape their own lives around kids even where safety isn't a factor. I don't see that the kids or the parents are better for it.

Posted by: D Flinchum on August 8, 2006 4:11 PM

Glad to see Bradamante's point, which was going to be my own. Unless I'm missing something in the description of "swaddling" that is particularly sinister, it seems to me that this is probably just the result of inherited experience: Most babies like to be wrapped up, and pretty darn tight. If you think about it, they're used to a womb which is a little compact, to say the least. Being wrapped up calms a baby down, and because of it, probably continues to feel safe and comfortable long after birth.

I won't disagree with you, Michael, that there are elements of dysfunction in our current system of child-rearing--an overprotectiveness, a romanticization of childhood, a loss of proper context for discipline, etc. etc. But I have to admit to being skeptical of Shorter's larger thesis. You can say he doesn't have a political agenda, but remember that that's not the only kind of agenda (at least, if you mean "political" narrowly). Sociologists are sensitive to all kinds of pressures; for instance, the drive to put forth a startling new thesis about the past.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on August 8, 2006 6:38 PM

I wonder how much the kid-centricity of the last 40 years is due to birth control.

Women who were continually getting pregnant were probably too exhausted and overwhelmed to give their children the kind of attention they can today.

(Bearing a child was also much more risky. How many women viewed their pregnancies as potentially deadly, and how did that taint their attitudes toward their children postpartum?)

Perhaps, in Western countries today, we are experiencing a form of Little Emperor Syndrome.

Whether it's ultimately healthy or not, only time will tell. I see parents who won't even make decisions on behalf of their kids and to me, they are raising spoiled brats who are going to face major problems down the road. But as a parent of an only (not by choice) I definitely focus a lot of resources on my kid, certainly more than my parents did on me.

Posted by: Kirsten on August 8, 2006 7:02 PM

I think birth control, dramatically lower infant/child mortality, increased affluence etc. all have a role to play in increasing kid-centricity in the Western world. If you feared that one or more of your kids will perish because of smallpox or diphtheria or what have you, you would want to have more kids just in case.

I am not sure maternal mortality played a role in attitudes towards children. If childbirth was more than a little less than optimal, the mother most likely died. So she would not be around to hold a grouse against the kid.

Posted by: JM on August 8, 2006 7:36 PM

Does Shorter speculate on the cause of the parenting transition he claims occurred in the 1700s? Presumably it must have been momentous if Europeans gave up the child rearing practices that had, more or less, served them 'adequately' for a thousand years and suddenly started investing far more time and energy in the little rascals. What was in it for the parents?

One item, I presume, does not qualify to be the cause: a lowering of infant mortality. I believe childhood deaths didn't drop to even approximately modern levels until well into the 19th century.

Even if the transition wasn't as dramatic as Shorter claims, I will grant that something shifted at that time. My speculations as to why such a change might have occurred would center on food. Throughout the period you describe, the average European ate fewer and fewer calories, and especially fewer calories from protein. This was a factor of ever larger numbers crowding into more or less the same amount of arable land on the continent, along with the virtual elimination of most animals that could be easily hunted (boar, deer, etc.)in most parts of central and Western Europe. (Advances in farming occured, but except in the Netherlands, England and parts of Italy, were overwhelmed by population increases.) Nutrition throughout most of continent hit an all-time low in the first half of the 19th century, but diets were scraping bottom a century or so earlier. It may be a bit humbling to realize it, but people in Charlemagne's era ate considerably better (and especially in regards to protein consumption) than people in Napoleon's time. (They were also notably taller.) Given the state of its agriculture, France was seriously overpopulated by the 18th century, and I wonder if that didn't play a role in a big change roughly contemporary with the change you're discussing: the beginnings of the Great Demographic Transition (significantly fewer births per woman), which seems to have started in France in the 18th century and then spread to the U.S. and the rest of Europe over the next century.

Such a change may have also suggested the wisdom of investing more time per kid, no? Is this Shorter's explanation, or am I just whistling Dixie here?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 8, 2006 9:22 PM

Regarding the issue of children and guns, the Freakonomics crew pointed out that while many (most?) suburban parents will not let their children play at the houses of friends if they know there are guns in the houses, they seldom have any objection to letting their children play at the houses of friends if the houses have swimming pools - despite the fact that a swimming pool is far more likely to be deadly to a child than is a gun.

Posted by: Peter on August 8, 2006 10:37 PM

Evan -- Why so attached to the idea that epic adolescent masturbation is one of history's constants? Shorter found evidence of much that suggests that kids in pre-modern Europe weren't the constant wankers we think of kids as being. For one thing, there was hardly any privacy -- community supervision was ferocious, and people didn't generally have their own rooms. For another, romance, pairing-up, marriage, and sex patterns were all different than what we're famliar with. For a third, there's hardly any mention in any kind of literature (including medical) during this stretch of the existence of wanking. Further, once regions entered into the modern period -- more privacy, changed notions of romance and sex -- the literature on wanking suddenly explodes. Wanking is suddenly everywhere, and is everywhere felt to be a problem. Shorter's wrong or he's right in his interpretation of what all this indicates, but that's a pretty impressive collection of facts.

Steve -- I'd love to hear more about how your rancher friends raise their kids!

JM -- I should have made it clearer that Shorter's "traditional family life" refers only to European family life from the middle ages to circa 1800. He doesn't discuss other cultures at all. Eager to learn about Indian patterns of mating and such, though.

D Flinchum -- The funny thing I see a lot of in spoiled/anxious NYC circles is parents who look to their kids for approval. "Oh, no," I think, "now there's a kid who's gonna have a hard time not becoming a monster." Maybe for some people kids have become the new authority figures? It seems unfair to kids for adults to look to them for validation, doesn't it?

Bradamante, Chris -- Snuggly can be good, god knows. The accounts of swaddling that Shorter quotes from, though, don't make the way swaddling was usually used in pre-modern Europe seem snuggly, they make it seem dangerous, stifling, and unhygienic.

Kirsten -- That seems hyper-plausible to me. I like your "Little Emperor" syndrome too. God knows I'm seeing a lot of that in my neighborhood.

JM -- Maternal mortality must have been fierce in the 1600s, no? Even until recently ... Don't I remember reading somewhere that the average American woman lived only into her mid-40s as recently as 1890 (with the average being that low largely because of so many deaths in childbirth)?

FvB -- No, Shorter doesn't go much into the causes of the big change. Darn it, I'd love to have more of a sense of how and why it all came about. People were better-nourished back in Charlemagne's time than during Napoleon's? Amazing.

Peter -- Maybe a swimming pool just doesn't hit the parental fear-imagination in quite the same way that a gun does ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 8, 2006 11:44 PM

Does Shorter go into Classical times at all? There's quite a lot of evidence from recovered tombstones and from literary evidence that the Romans felt about their children much as we do - well, not today, but the way we did in the 1930's and 1940's. The tomb inscriptions are often very moving, and toys are often found in graves along with protective amulets (bullae). Was brutal child-rearing something that started in Dark Ages Europe, or what? Not all the Roman graves were those of aristocrats, by any means.

FvB is probably right about nutrition in Europe - it was actually better in the Early Middle Ages, we think. Not to be ignored in this connection is the fact that from 1250-1850 A.D. Europe was in the grip of the "Little Ice Age" a slow, steady cooling of the climate. During the warm period prior to the Little Ice Age, harvests and hence nutrition were much better...

Posted by: tschafer on August 9, 2006 1:05 AM

Yes, parents travel more with their kids these days. For the very rich, it always has been an option but now the shrinking middle class has taken it up as a 'must do' as well. I know a lot of them. But they borrow on equity, charge it on cards. Looks pretty cool, but families these days have less in the bank and more debt than ever before.

No one is saving as much as previous generations. Since there won't be a thing called a pension, they risk being their well-travelled child's responsibility some day.

My kids haven't seen the world. I don't have the money for that. But we do lots of other things, and frankly, I'm more concerned right now that as they glide in and through their teens, that they make good friends and find things in town that they love and will always remember when (and if) they ever choose to move away. (Today I came home from work to a household of six 15- year old boys. They'd just skated all over town, did laser tag and were on their way out to catch a bus to see a movie. Left to their own devices, I'd say they did well on their own).

Sure, we do road trips each year. But taking them around the world? No, I'd like to, but I don't have the money for that, nor do I feel it's my obligation. If they want to do that, they'll work and save for it as I did when I got that urge. So far we've seen all of the national parks in the USA, up into Canada and Alaska. Yes, the whole memorable childhood hell in the car with Mom and Dad, the dogs and siblings. Think of the stories they'll tell when I'm dead. (And yes, they understand that parklands are worth saving).

Besides, my 16-year old will start driving next year (he has to get his grades up). Why waste his willingness to drive on a plane, when I can kick back for a bit on that dull drive through Nevada up to Montana?

Posted by: california blow dryed on August 9, 2006 1:40 AM

Re the subthread of parents looking to their children for approval:

I think it follows rather logically contemporary trends in education/child psychology. If you want to get treated like a pariah in education these days, the first thing you suggest is that your brand of teaching isn't 'child-centered' or 'learner-centered'. These concepts date way back to Rosseau, but they boil down to allowing the innately good, curious child to lead the way in terms of what she wants to learn, how she wants to learn it, and so on. Children know best what's good for them when it comes to learning.

Once the educational establishment grants children these powers, it's a small step for parents to pick up on the vibe and start assuming their kids know best about all sorts of things . . . .

I think it's pure poison. Kids (and older learners) frequently don't know what's best for them. That's why we have teachers.

Posted by: mr tall on August 9, 2006 1:51 AM

"Diversity" in America is a major reason that American parents obsess over knowing what their kids are doing every minute.

If you have a homogenous society, you can give your kids the freedom to associate with their peers without supervision. The parents of their peers will be similar to you, since you are all part of a homogenous culture.

On the other hand, with diversity, your kids' peers and the parents of your kids' peers might be drastically different. Different isn't necessarily "bad", but there is also an issue of simply rapport and shared interests between parents and their kids. If you have kids and you don't micromanage them, they might develop drastically different interests to a point where you end up with an awkward silence when you're with them. It isn't PC to talk about this, but parents don't want to "lose their children" to outside influences of a different race or nationality.

Posted by: J on August 9, 2006 8:30 AM

Peter, you are absolutely right about the swimming pools, but a bigger threat to toddlers than guns is buckets. Yep, buckets with water being used to clean something. The little guy walks up to it, leans over to look in, falls in head first, and drowns.

The whole kids-being-killed-by-guns issue is vastly overblown. The picture you get - and are supposed to get - is of a seven-year-old being shot while walking to school carrying a "Hello Kitty" bookbag. The "kids" that are more likely to be killed are in their late teens and are in the drug trade or are gang-bangers. Am I sorry that they got killed? Of course. Surprised? No.

Michael, there was an article in a recent Sunday Washington Post magazine about parents supplying booze for drunken teen parties. Seems some of them want to be the "cool parents". As you said, looking for approval.....

Posted by: D Flinchum on August 9, 2006 9:08 AM

Kristen, I think you're spot on about smaller families. Parents can't possibly micromanage kids in larger families. Kids also learn that they have to share and are not the center of the world. Maybe instead of world tours another sib would benefit the tykes.

Posted by: Bradamante on August 9, 2006 9:48 AM

Cal, our 2 week trip to Spain cost us about as much as a cross-country trip would have. Airfare, of course, was the biggest expense, but once we got there, accomodations were dirt cheap, as was food and enterainment. We drove only 3 times, so gas was not really an expense. This was before the Euro, so it may be more today. It really depends on the country. But yeah, of course it's not necessary to drag them all over the globe.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 9, 2006 9:55 AM

Re Rancher kids: something like "D Flinchum's", plus horses and hard work. Kids literally learn to ride at four, rope etc-- still! Guns are tools. Kids help at things like branding, castration, and worse-- girls too. Not a few I have known go on to veterinary school on scholarship. One I know has had poetry published in the Atlantic (he is all of 24).

They actually say "sir" and "ma'am". A few are even Democrats, though not one is PC.

Ranch work is hard and even dangerous (as is anything involving large animals), with built- in consequences, but also fun, for all ages, and somewhat communal-- people other than family get together to help.

I'm sure Mary can add to this.

Posted by: Steve Bodio on August 9, 2006 10:08 AM

Tschafer: Glad you mentioned the ancients. The Romans -- aristocrats anyway -- do seem to have been an awful lot like moderns on this score. And given health standards of the age, anguish over dead children is a pretty ubiquitous literary theme. Cicero's bereavement over the death of his (young adult and wedded) daughter is probably the most well known case. If Shorter is proving anything (and I have my reservations), I suspect it is about the unique awfulness of the Middle Ages and/or what used to be called the Lower Orders, not the particularness of modernity.

M.B.: Again, I don't regard the non-existence of literary discussion of masturbation evidence one way or the other. Mediaeval writing is telegraphic on all sorts of matters and I see no a priori reason to suspect that jerking off would have been automatically a thing to be recorded. Suppose, on the other hand, it was rampant and simply taken for granted without any particular moral horror (like nose picking): that would explain its absence from discussion just as well, no? (Not that I am advancing this point of view either, just arguing for the sake of arguing.) Slightly odd, though, that Aquinas would not have something to say about it, though I am just taking Shorter's word for it that he doesn't.

The lack of privacy also I do not regard as very compelling evidence. Firstly, population densities were low over all, even if space inside dwellings was cramped. The mediaeval population was overwhelmingly rural. Lots of fields, meadows, and woods to nick off to for ten minutes of private time, if that's what you wanted. (I'm assuming this is where a person headed for the more pedestrian forms of relief as well.) But I'm not sure it IS so obvious that it is what anyone wanted. If privacy was so scarce, is there any reason to assume it was missed or needed? I've heard manifold stories from friends who have visited, e.g., Russia, about couples making love on couches in living rooms in front of guests/family, etc. As you say, private space is quite a recent thing to take for granted, and still isn't in most places. And if the evidence from boys' schools is to be admitted, it doesn't seem essential to having a bit of solo sex now and again.

I don't recall saying anything about "epic" bouts of wanking in my earlier post. I would assume that then, as now, enthusiasm varies between individuals (some teenage boys having a good deal more appetite for this sort of thing than others), and certainly conditions are more ripe now for overindulgence. But I have a very strong bias toward believing that human nature is more constant than not, and I find the insinuation that people weren't playing with themselves at all before about 1870 totally absurd on the face of it.

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Posted by: Evan McElravy on August 9, 2006 11:34 AM

Tschafer: Glad you mentioned the ancients. The Romans -- aristocrats anyway -- do seem to have been an awful lot like moderns on this score. And given health standards of the age, anguish over dead children is a pretty ubiquitous literary theme. Cicero's bereavement over the death of his (young adult and wedded) daughter is probably the most well known case. If Shorter is proving anything (and I have my reservations), I suspect it is about the unique awfulness of the Middle Ages and/or what used to be called the Lower Orders, not the particularness of modernity.

M.B.: Again, I don't regard the non-existence of literary discussion of masturbation evidence one way or the other. Mediaeval writing is telegraphic on all sorts of matters and I see no a priori reason to suspect that jerking off would have been automatically a thing to be recorded. Suppose, on the other hand, it was rampant and simply taken for granted without any particular moral horror (like nose picking): that would explain its absence from discussion just as well, no? (Not that I am advancing this point of view either, just arguing for the sake of arguing.) Slightly odd, though, that Aquinas would not have something to say about it, though I am just taking Shorter's word for it that he doesn't.

The lack of privacy also I do not regard as very compelling evidence. Firstly, population densities were low over all, even if space inside dwellings was cramped. The mediaeval population was overwhelmingly rural. Lots of fields, meadows, and woods to nick off to for ten minutes of private time, if that's what you wanted. (I'm assuming this is where a person headed for the more pedestrian forms of relief as well.) But I'm not sure it IS so obvious that it is what anyone wanted. If privacy was so scarce, is there any reason to assume it was missed or needed? I've heard manifold stories from friends who have visited, e.g., Russia, about couples making love on couches in living rooms in front of guests/family, etc. As you say, private space is quite a recent thing to take for granted, and still isn't in most places. And if the evidence from boys' schools is to be admitted, it doesn't seem essential to having a bit of solo sex now and again.

I don't recall saying anything about "epic" bouts of wanking in my earlier post. I would assume that then, as now, enthusiasm varies between individuals (some teenage boys having a good deal more appetite for this sort of thing than others), and certainly conditions are more ripe now for overindulgence. But I have a very strong bias toward believing that human nature is more constant than not, and I find the insinuation that people weren't playing with themselves at all before about 1870 totally absurd on the face of it.

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Posted by: Evan McElravy on August 9, 2006 11:38 AM

Steve, since most rancher now are over fifty, the child-raising issue has become rather moot.

The kids in Cut Bank who lived in the country (not really ranching, just sort of roosting) said that their parents told them they didn't have to do any chores so long as they were football or basketball stars.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 9, 2006 12:01 PM

Not dissing your trip to Spain. And yes, road trips cost too. The difference is that we do roadtrips throughout the year and we can cover the costs immediately with cash and not eat into other reserves. Zion, Bryce, Yosemite, Death Valley, Big Sur, Grand Canyon are easy jaunts that can span a 4 day weekend. Tent, free; campground cheap; gas a bargain even at $4/gallon; upholding the tradition of random swats directed to the backseat: priceless. Memory of Dad pitching the tent in a floodplain when it was raining: useful!

Yuck. Playdates. I still shivver when I hear the word. It's a social-butt in from the parents. Fortunately, when the kids get to become teens, they choose who they want to hang with.

Chores: Lots of kids have cleaning ladies and gardeners these days. Kids are raised as junior executives, and that's why they're bossy as someone else has pointed out. They're not experienced, but very opinonated. (But around here we have the Saturday list. Each kid has 3 hours to finish the chores on the list to get paid. If he doesn't do it in 3 hours, the work still has to be done but he doesn't get paid. Works like a charm. I don't yell anymore and as soon as I pay them they're out the door with their friends, arranging their own "playdates.")

Posted by: california blow dryed on August 9, 2006 2:10 PM

Tschaefer -- That's interesting, tks. No, Shorter doesn't go into Classical times at all. He's just talking about a transition he feels took place between pre-modern (as in, mostly, medieval) and modern forms of family organization in Europe.

Mr Tall -- That seems really shrewd ... The kid as repository of wisdom ... Yikes. What a funny belief.

Steve -- Growing up on a ranch sounds character building, as well as fun. A nice combo.

Evan -- Shorter doesn't say that kids weren't wanking in pre-modern Europe, just that the culture of wanking (if you will) was different than it became in modern Europe. What it meant changed, how it was pursued and perceived changed. Shorter suspects that the frequency of masturbation increased too, which as you point out is/would be a hard one to prove one way or the other. I think he makes a good case for it, though. When life is more concerned with survival essentials, wanking is probably a matter of physical relief and little more. When interior sensibilities start to be cultivated, perhaps wanking becomes more a matter of self-expression and self-exploration. But, as you say, a tough one to nail down.

California Blow-dried -- The whole "chores" question is an interesting one, no? Cleaning ladies and yardwork crews seem much more common these days than when I was growing up. Which must mean that pitching in with the chores is probably not quite the same thing it once was for middle class kids, right? And haven't I been told that it has become uncommon for many middle-class kids to make some spare bucks by mowing lawns and raking leaves? Strange. I guess they're doing internships and accumulating college credits, or something...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 9, 2006 3:38 PM

Blow-dried, my kids have Saturday chores too. They don't get lunch until they're done. Withholding food works as well for me as withholding money works for you!

Posted by: Bradamante on August 9, 2006 3:58 PM

Read about one man's pathetic life:

I hope he's written a follow up.

Best way to turn your house into a ranch-like experience if one lives in the burbs is to fire the housekeeper, gardener and toss out all the take out menus. Then tell your kid to ride his bike or his board. Works like a charm.

Posted by: california blow dryed on August 9, 2006 5:23 PM

That's funny, my oldest just said to me last Saturday that we do more yardwork than anyone he knows. It's true. Our neighbors either pay to have their yard done or don't keep it up at all.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 9, 2006 5:42 PM

To answer Steve Bodio's question up-thread, most Native American groups in North and Central America used cradle-boards which were very similar in effect to swaddling clothes. Many of these groups added another painfull dimension to this by hingeing a board to the top of the cradle-board and strapping it down across the child's forehead. This forced the baby's plastic cranial bones to take on a permanent wedge shape that was apparently esteemed as a mark of beauty. I don't know of any hunter-gatherer groups that did this, but the Anasazi and agricultural societies in the Southeast practiced it. Most of the Central American state-level societies did too.

I have to second Steve's statement about ranch kids from my observations in rural California. A lot of my kids' friends had that background.

We didn't live on a ranch, but my two (now 24 and 20) were allowed to roam mostly unsupervised riding their bikes or horses to friends' houses. They entertained themselves and are quite self-sufficient in taking care of themselves. It was a good experience for them. We had lots of scheduled activities for them, but they revolved around athletics that the kids were interested in. Also Boy Scouts for my son, which is quickly becoming un-PC.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on August 10, 2006 10:25 AM

Yeah, I think Shorter's premise is flawed. Literature throughout the ages and from all cultures talks about the love parents have for their children. Even though they're myth and fiction, they still reflect the reality at large in the culture, meaning that since love for children is mentioned, it existed in the culture.

(Same for romantic love, btw. I remember hearing in a Lit. class that romantic love was a recent invention in culture. Horsepoop. Even the oldest literature mentions love between man and wife. That's the central theme to The Odyssey even.)

Yes, older cultures had to come up with a way to emotionally deal with regularly losing children, but that fact in itself proves that we've always loved our kids.

Though I do agree we've become very kid-centered in America.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 10, 2006 2:25 PM

I suppose I'm coming late in the game, but this post (to my view) is another example of why you should not trust anthropological theses about pre-revolution French life. The notion that the French were callous and brutal to their children until 1750 is one first written about by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who was very gentle and affectionate towards one child, the fictional Emile, while dumping the bastards he sired in orphanages. The revolution split French writing about pre-revolution France to two camps, both far too idealogical to be trusted.

Posted by: Omri on August 12, 2006 12:45 AM

Mary: I think in spite of the problems down here in New Mexico (which we have discussed) it is a healthier place for ranchers to survive than in Montana-- I know any number of ranch "kids" in their twenties starting families. "Affordable family formation"? Well, in one sense-- they can just put their own trailer house on the ranch. Of course ranch economy is always edgy, and many have jobs off- ranch as well.

This is funny because I'd guess pasture is better up there.

Star athletes do get cut some slack-- but not freedom from chores. Maybe before (20 years ago) when there were still hired cowboys and even a few wetbacks-- neither exist here any more.

Posted by: Steve Bodio on August 12, 2006 9:12 AM

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